Call me a Menno-nerd
Who reads a 500+ page history/biography as recreational reading?
I’m not patting myself on the back, just somewhat amazed how engrossed I’ve been in Harold S. Bender 1897-1962, by Albert N. Keim [Herald Press, 1998] for the past couple months. It took me that long because I sometimes only read 2-3 pages at a time, before going to sleep.
I first picked it up because as an Eastern Mennonite University student in the early 70s, one of our required readings was Bender’s short booklet, The Anabaptist Vision (I still have my first well-marked copy from my student days), which had grabbed me then and formed some of my thinking.
The second reason I picked up the biography of Bender was because it written by one of my favorite professors of all time, the late historian Al Keim. After I took my first course with him, I enrolled in whatever other courses he taught that I could fit in, just because I enjoyed them so much. He was mischievously full of good stories. And he had a daughter named Melody.
Keim begins the difficult job of chronicling Bender’s widespread influence by detailing as much as he could learn of Bender’s childhood home and family, and summarizes Bender’s father, George, as working in “Mennonite publishing and missions.”
Bam. That hit me between the eyes. I have spent my whole career so far, 37 years, working in Mennonite publishing and missions. Maybe this book would somehow connect to my life, I thought. The Bender family lived for awhile at 1711 Prairie Street in Elkhart, Ind., where I and many other Mennonite Voluntary Service orientees passed through (and ate many meals) on our way to service assignments. Later I stayed there when traveling to Elkhart for meetings. So Harold lived in that house while his dad worked as administrator of Mennonite Board of Missions there; there he overheard the beginnings for organizations like Mennonite Central Committee (Keim, p. 75).
I love the way this biography, like an octopus, sends out tentacles to so many aspects of Mennonite and Anabaptist history and links them, especially to the tumultuous first half of the 20th century (considering two world wars and their aftermath) and brings it all together so one can begin to glimpse the powerful ways the Mennonite church and its history were shaped during that time.*
Bender, for instance, was instrumental in setting up, with the U.S. government, the Civilian Public Service program providing conscientious objectors like my father a way to serve their country and God without taking up arms, which they felt went against the teachings of Jesus Christ. CPS was the pivotal experience of my father’s life. It was his college education (as a farm boy, never having gone past grade 8 in school) and his deeper introduction to Mennonite peace theology. He read books and literature and learned from the many speakers and leaders who passed through the camps where he served. Dad, in turn, always tried to teach and share these ideals with his children and grandchildren.
So when H.S. Bender came along and said Mennonites needed to send their kids to Mennonite high schools and colleges in order to insure that subsequent generations were given the opportunity to understand their Anabaptist heritage of suffering and dying for their faith, my pop stood right in line and came up with the money (by selling pigs, if necessary) to send his kids to a Mennonite high school (until we moved from the area).
I could go on, but blogs are brief and this book is not. I’ll try to wrap it up.
Keim critiques Bender in many places, not sidestepping how frenetically busy and involved Bender stayed throughout his life in so many endeavors (to the consternation of peers who frequently told him he was overcommitted, to put it mildly). If you need a reason to want to explore this book, or if you have ever been involved in any of these organizations, his list of assignments or jobs he was doing concurrently was astounding (and most of these institutions still operate today in one form or another; I’ve linked the existing organization, if found):
Dean of Goshen Biblical Seminary
Secretary of MCC Executive Committee
Chair of MCC Peace Section
Chair of Peace Problems Committee
Chair of Historical Committee
Executive Secretary of Bethany Christian High SchoolPresident, Mennonite Historical Society
Editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review
Chair of International Mennonite Peace Committee
President Mennonite World Conference
Editor of The Mennonite Encyclopedia
(And three other posts which have less general meaning or modern counterparts.)
Exhausted anyone? Was he power hungry? Maybe power-driven by personality, but humbleness kept him in line. Keim touches on those questions, not skirting comments by those who felt Bender overreached at times.
But mostly it was a different time, a smaller Mennonite world, when it often made sense to have one man (yes, his world was mostly male church leaders) wearing multiple hats because if you were sailing to Europe to do business, you might as plan the next Mennonite World Conference, consult on the encyclopedia project, work on establishing European headquarters for MCC etc. etc. AND be indulging in collecting obscure Anabaptist history books because that was one of your few hobbies/passions (even whisking them away from European scholars who also coveted them). And oh yes, there’s this pesky World War II thing breaking out so gotta worry about Hitler and visas and getting in and out of countries.
I didn’t know Bender led such an amazing life. Bender was a mentor to people like the brilliant young scholar John Howard Yoder, who would write The Politics of Jesus and many many other volumes and become a name known worldwide in peace theology circles. Eventually Bender, as generations changed, found himself defending a certain amount of orthodoxy, which he resisted as a younger man. But he was skilled in mediating and finding harmony among diverse thinkers and across generations.
In his epilogue, Keim notes that Peter Dyck, another giant of that era, noted that each evening when they traveled together Bender, without fail, would read a passage of scripture and kneel at his bedside for audible prayer. “Perhaps no ritual among Mennonites was more pervasive than the one Peter Dyck observed,” wrote Keim.
I can still see my Dad doing the same thing beside his bed if I happened to sneak in late and pass his open door. A strong precious memory.
I’m sorry I missed the book when it first came out, but historical biography never gets old. Plus it probably means more to me now after nearly 15 years of curating Mennonite information for the public at Third Way Café.
Call me a Menno-nerd. A Presbyterian-Anabaptist-Mennonite nerd. Or something.
*The book, because it primarily spans the time period of Bender’s life from 1897 to 1962 does not mention the exciting current era of how the Mennonite/Anabaptist world has changed and shifted to where today there are many more Mennonites south of the equator than north of it, many more Mennonites a color other than pasty beige. You could say Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist takes up The Anabaptist Vision today.